“We’re headed down to Braddock,” my uncle said, Blue Öyster Cult flooding from the car stereo. “Gonna watch the barges pass through the locks.”
His white Cutlass was idling at the curb outside the schoolyard at St. James, where he stood with the driver’s side door propped open and the front seat folded forward so I could climb in the back. I threw my book bag in first and slid across the maroon interior, my Catholic school uniform of blue oxford shirt and khaki pants looking shabby against the smooth velour.
“Hey there, kid,” said Bozo, my uncle’s friend, who was riding shotgun. “Long time no see.” He flashed an awkward smile in my direction as blue cigarette smoke billowed from his nostrils, two upside-down smokestacks spitting exhaust against a face scattered with freckles and a receding hairline of dirty red curls.
It was winter of 1986, not long after my ninth birthday. Pittsburgh looked as it always did: dejected and lost beneath a canopy of swollen gray clouds. Same as he had for much of the past year, my uncle assumed the role of de facto babysitter. It was an arrangement part circumstance and part convenience. My parents both worked, and my uncle had lost his job at Heinz the year before. This meant we no longer received plastic Heinz pickle pins as souvenirs, but we did see a lot more of my uncle. Since the layoff, his days were often spent holed up in my grandmother’s house, where he lived with his wife and son—my aunt and cousin—drinking Miller High Life tall boys and watching Beverly Hills Cop on VHS.
When my uncle lost his job, I was old enough to know that it was bad to be unemployed. It must have stressed his marriage and his role as a father and placed undue pressure on his living arrangement with my grandmother. I was also old enough to have overheard conversations about his drinking problem. My father, my uncle’s younger brother, would pull him aside, and I would hear them talking in hushed tones. I always assumed my father was offering whatever help he could, trying in vain to change my uncle’s trajectory. But I never heard what they said to each other. Often my father’s concerns seemed to be lost in all the noise, and my uncle would change the subject, talking at normal volume again about the home remodeling project he had thrown himself into or reminiscing about their childhood.
Much later, I would learn that my uncle had been in and out rehab several times, and that my father was always there to help him get clean.
I was young to walk the mile alone from St. James to my family’s house in Princeton Park, situated high atop a hill in Wilkinsburg, so the responsibility of shepherding me home each day fell to my uncle. He often walked the half-dozen blocks from my grandmother’s house to my school, where he stood waiting at the edge of the playground in his olive-green military jacket — the same piece of clothing that my father and so many men of his generation brought home after the war in Vietnam. From a distance, my uncle could almost be confused for my father, hands tucked in his jacket pockets, body sloped against the chain-link fence, and brown hair swept across his forehead. The most notable difference—visible, at least—was that my uncle had a mustache that curled at the sides of his mouth, while my father was usually clean-shaven. But there were other differences beneath the surface. My uncle was outgoing and could command a room, his wit sharp and his sense of humor wry. In contrast, my father was quiet, strong, and dependable, the type of person who was always in your corner. As brothers, they balanced one another out.
In simpler times, my parents might have strung a house key on a shoestring, hung it around my neck, and told me to walk home and lock the door until they returned from work. But after the 1977 abduction and murder of Beth Lynn Barr, a six-year-old neighborhood girl who disappeared on her way home from Johnston School — which sat a mere two blocks from our front door — an irreversible fear had crept into our lives. My parents, my mother in particular, fretted over the safety of my sister and me. To walk home unaccompanied would have been borrowing trouble, tempting the types of strangers who snatched up children and separated them from the world.
So, when school let out each afternoon, my uncle watched over us — a surrogate parent pulling shift work until my mother or father came to pick us up. My sister, who is five years older than me, would meet us after stepping off a Port Authority bus from Shadyside, where she attended a Catholic high school. We then picked up my younger cousin — my uncle’s son — before returning to my grandmother’s house to zone out on Merrie Melodies cartoons, MTV, and bowls of Fruity Pebbles. Those long afternoons are when I first watched an odd mishmash of movies, like Back to the Future, The Blues Brothers, and To Live and Die in L.A.; where I first heard “Nights in White Satin” from the Moody Blues’ Days of Future Passed album; and where I flipped through my uncle’s dusty old records just to marvel at the art on the album sleeves, soaking up the wild colors on Santana’s Abraxas or the somber faces of the Doors on their self-titled debut.
“You know this song?” my uncle yelled from the second floor of my grandmother’s house, the sound of needle on vinyl hissing from the stereo speakers in his bedroom. “It’s ‘the Boss!’” With a bandanna tied across his forehead, my uncle held the neck of an invisible guitar that was slung across his shoulder as the opening notes of “Born in the USA” rumbled through the floorboards. When the vocals came in, my uncle silently mouthed Springsteen’s anthemic lyrics, his expression as animated as his body.
Born down in a dead man’s town
The first kick I took was when I hit the ground
End up like a dog that’s been beat too much
Till you spend half your life just covering up.
As the song built to the chorus, my uncle bounced up and down the hall — wearing a T-shirt, shorts, and tube socks — strumming his phantom guitar and smiling as if he were playing to a sold-out crowd and had done this a thousand times before. If for no other reason, the performance could have passed for a low-budget Saturday Night Live sketch for his commitment to the bit. When the chorus came back around, my uncle pointed at me as he danced down the steps and held his hand to his ear, urging us all to join in. But none of us were as electric as he was. As the song ended, he flopped down on the couch in the living room, forehead beaded with sweat.
It was exactly the kind of moment that could make spending time with my uncle so exhilarating. He was almost childlike, his charisma and dry sense of humor lending a certain sense of unpredictability to our afternoons.
But when my uncle arrived at St. James that day with Bozo, the three of us were alone. My sister wasn’t there, and my cousin was still at school. And something about my uncle seemed different. There was wild excitement in his eyes, a strange urgency in his voice. It was almost as if I were seeing an alternate personality. As he steered the Cutlass away from the curb at the school, he cranked the volume on the radio while mapping the route to Braddock in his head.